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PULSE OF THE TOWN - GAME NIGHT IN CINCINNATI, OHIO
October 31, 2008

SCS.comSettling in for a game at Nippert stadium, located right in the heart of Cincinnati, Ohio, you realize this is where real college football is played. The Bearcats definitely play third fiddle to the well-known professional sports teams in this city, but yet the UC campus pulls off a sense of community in the middle of that hustle and bustle. This may be BCS football, but it is far from the corporate glitzy giants in nearby Knoxville, Columbus, and Ann Arbor. A perfect balance of big-time big city and small town college football, Cincinnati is a great place to see a football game. On tonight's docket we have a pre-Halloween bash between South Florida (6-2, 1-2 Big East) and Cincinnati (5-2, 1-1 Big East). Neither team can afford another loss if they wish to have any hope of a BCS bowl, which would be a first for either program.

Pre-game festivities at UC include the Cincinnati band playing on the campus green. This week the theme of the halftime show is obvious, great Halloween music. Playing old time hits like "The Monster Mash," the band knew how to get the crowd in the mood for Halloween and good football. With the pregame still going on strong, I made my way into Nippert Stadium to see the warm-ups.

These teams look pretty motivated coming off disappointing losses. It's always easy to get back up off the mat when it's a nationally-televised game 5 days later, and I saw no sagging shoulders. Both teams should come out strong. I've never seen a home team come out to fireworks in all the games I have attended, but that's exactly what UC does, shooting quite a few blasts of red fireworks from the field as they run across the field toward the crazed student section. Tonight is "black-out" night in Nippert, and the fans have done a nice job filling the stands on a weeknight with a sea of black. At least it will be easy to see the bright green on the USF family and friends, and it would be impossible to lose an actual Bulls player in their all-white jerseys.

The first quarter begins, and the Bearcats start with the ball first. A drive that starts from the 26-yard line, Cincinnati started out balanced and got a nice third-down pass from QB Tony Pike to convert their first third-down. However, a fumble two plays later forced by CB Tyller Roberts was recovered by USF on the 50 yard line. On the Bulls' first third down, pressure forced a bad decision by QB Matt Grothe, who was intercepted and the big return by CB Mike Mickens took it all the way to the USF 14. Cincinnati took four plays to drive it in, but the red zone offense was clicking and RB John Goebel ran it in from two yards out for his fifth touchdown of the season to make it UC 7 - USF 0.

On the ensuing possession, USF wasted no time, going 81 yards in four plays over only 1:37 on the clock, highlighted by an amazing 48 yard grab around midfield. RB Mo Plancher picked up the 1-yard touchdown run, making it USF 7 - UC 7.

Cincinnati came back with a nick kick return to start the next drive at the UC 36. Cincinnati overcame a holding penalty with a 48 yard pass to WR Mardy Gilyard, leading into a 32 yard field goal by PK Jake Rogers. UC 10 - USF 7.

The Bulls survived a 4th-and-1 on the next possession on their end of the field and started driving down the field again into the second quarter. Once they got into Bearcat territory, the defense stiffened and forced a punt, putting UC on their own 9 yard line. Cincinnati brought out the hurry-up offense and it really put the Bulls defense on their heels, as Cincinnati produced five straight first downs on five consecutive plays and capped the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass from QB Tony Pike to WR Mardy Gilyard. UC 17 - USF 7.

The Bulls converted one first down on the next possession, but brought out the punt team for only the second time tonight. Cincinnati's offense kept on grinding though, using an aerial assault on the USF defense to drive all the way to the USF 19 before a well-timed interception, SS Carlton Williams returned the ball to the UC 43. Still on a crucial third down, the tip ball drill came in handy as the Bearcats tipped a Matt Grothe pass into the air and found the interception by DE Lamonte Nelms. With time winding down below a minute in the half, Cincinnati again tried the air assault but fumbled the ball after a 33 yard reception at the USF 25. The Bulls were content to run out the remaining seconds on the half. HALFTIME SCORE: CINCINNATI 17 - SOUTH FLORIDA 7.

HALFTIME THOUGHTS - After disappointing with a narrow win against Rutgers and a disappearing act at Connecticut, Cincinnati has come out firing on all cylinders tonight with 227 yards passing and 281 for the half (averaging 270 in the air and 403 overall per game to date). South Florida has to find some way to get pressure on QB Tony Pike without letting him run out of the pocket and bust big plays. There's not a whole lot going wrong on Cincinnati's end, but a few penalties at bad times could be making this game closer than it looks. At this point, I'm calling for a better effort out of USF as they keep churning yards on the ground, but Cincinnati looks like they have too much for this Bulls team tonight.

Thankfully for the Bulls, they do get the ball to start the second half. Unfortunately for them, the ball went ten yards backwards after one first down, and USF punted away to put Cincinnati in good field position at their own 41. Cincinnati also started the first half going backwards and punting, setting up USF on their own 42. Could this be an omen of things to come or just like the first half when both teams sputtered initially then got rolling quickly? The Bulls ended up moving the ball a little bit and PK Maikon Bonani hit a clutch 49 yard field goal to cut the deficit to a touchdown. USF 10 - UC 17.

The Cincinnati offense again tried the deep ball on the following possession, but came up enmpty this time around. Another punt gave the Bulls decent field position at their 23 yard line. The Bulls really started grinding out some yards before another tip drill juggle of a pass was intercepted by DB DeAngelo Smith near midfield. The Cincinnati offensive line is now showing they can run block as well as pass protect, as Cincinnati has started moving the ball on the ground for the first time all night. Still, the drive stalled on the USF 45 and a punt bounced into the endzone for a touchback. Clearly USF has the momentum, but the time has to be now for a big game-changing drive. QB Matt Grothe does not seem to be the same poised leader tonight as he has been, failing to connect on passes and not finding enough running room to prevent another USF punt. Cincinnati is thriving off the play of the defense and now the offense keeps moving the ball little by little to grind down the third-quarter clock. A spectacular "sportscenter" grab ended the third quarter with the Bearcats driving in the USF red zone. UC 17 - USF 10.

Going into the fourth quarter, the key stat of the game is third-down conversions: UC is 5 of 9, USF is struggling at 3 of 11. Most of the yardage tonight is through the air for the Bearcats, and a 1-yard touchdown pass to DE Connor Barwin (not a target I think USF counted on). UC 24 - USF 10.

Even though there's still over fourteen minutes left, the Bulls must have some urgency to get back into this game. Starting from their own 20 yard line, USF quarterback Matt Grothe finally found that busted play to run on and found 40 yards of daylight to push the Bulls into Cincinnati territory. Once in the redzone, the offense stalled out and could not convert, leaving Cincinnati the ball on their own 5 yard line but with a 14-point margin and only 8 minutes to victory. Cincinnati could do nothing backed up in their end zone, so South Florida would get another opportunity to drive on Cincinnati's side of the field. Again a drive stalled in the redzone, and Cincinnati really took a deathgrip on the game with 4:44 left. After a long run on first down, the USF defenders look tired and beaten. Cincinnati runs the clock out, FINAL SCORE CINCINNATI 24, SOUTH FLORIDA 10.

POSTGAME - Going down to the postgame news conference, a very laid back quartet of Bearcats explained some things about the game. DE Connor Barwin definitely had serious joy reliving his days at tight end when he scored on a 1-yard touchdown pass, saying he was determined to not let the opportunity pass him by. QB Tony Pike said that he was too sore in the fourth quarter to continue after putting up brilliant numbers, but by that point the Bearcats were taking direct snaps anyways, which Pike cannot handle with his cast on the arm after the Connecticut game. WR Mardy Gilyard said the team really hates coming in on a short week and practicing Sunday after a bad loss, but it gave them a chance to atone and they had 3 days of practice which led them to victory. Coach Brian Kelley confirmed that he thought the game was won on Sunday by the players responding to the loss with an excellent practice. Kelley said his offensive line and defense played their best games of the year, and he hopes they can keep the intensity up for a tough road game next weekend at West Virginia. After going an abysmal 0 for 15 on third downs in the previous week, the key improvement was getting that statistic back up 50%. Kelley also said it was a lot easier to motivate his players to recover thanks to the Thursday night national television audience coming to their home stadium.

Looking ahead, South Florida is officially out of the conference chase at 1-3. Still, the Bulls are bowl-eligible and will want to recover from tonight to play well at home in 2 weeks against Rutgers, as UCONN and WVU await at the end of November. As for the Bearcats, they still have their destiny in their own hands, as the only undefeated in conference play is their next opponent WVU. The Mountaineers are a tough out at home, but the way Cincinnati played tonight, there's no doubt the Bearcats can get it done.

One final note before I log off for the evening. You always meet fascinating people on these trips in the press box, and tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Connor, a San Diego native traveling across country again this fall in a sponsored biodiesel car. He takes in many sporting events as he crosses the country extolling the value of biodiesel fuels. As our country still faces an energy and oil crisis, it's very good to see people like Joe having fun at college events while also working on a good cause for the Los Angeles Times. You can check out his website at greenpowersportstour.com, and perhaps we will cross paths again one day Mr. Connor.

With that said, Happy Halloween and enjoy the great slate of games this weekend! We'll see you next Tuesday!

Pulse of the town is a feature piece on the game day experience, recapping the game and finding out how different fan bases party every weekend. After all, without the fans we are nothing!

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